Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Theology is for Proclamation

If I ever get around to writing a handbook on preaching, one of my primary road rules will be, "Read good theology, lots of it!" I quite often find it to be the case that when I try and read practical resources to prepare for preaching (commentaries on the biblical text from the lectionary, stuff off textweek, etc.), the pay off is slim. I don't mean to imply that these resources are somehow poorly written or un-interesting in their own right. Clearly, there's a direct application and connection- it just doesn't, at least in my method of sermon preparation, prepare in a fruitful way for the task of preaching.

On the other hand, when I stay engaged with solid theological resources, especially books that aren't obviously addressing a theme or text for the Sunday sermon, they do in fact in surprising ways prepare for preaching.

I consider this one of God's serendipitous benefactions. Read theology for its own sake, the joy of it, and the wonder, and it will prepare you to preach the Word of God come Sunday. Read widely, far away from anything that seems like a sermon handbook. Read difficult stuff. Explore the wonder of it. And you will be fed.

Two books I'm reading right now are stellar examples of this. James Alison's new collection of essays, Undergoing God: dispatches and scenes of a break-in, is a wonder. You can check out most of the essays at his web site, www.jamesalison.co.uk

The other book, also a collection of essays, is by the late and great Colin E. Gunton, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Toward a Fully Trinitarian Theology . For example, some aspect of the following will find its way into my Easter sermon: "In sum, the lesson we can learn is this: if you want to understand how God works in our world, then you must go through the route God himself has given us--the incarnation of the eternal Son and the life-giving action of the Spirit. Let me repeat: the Trinity is about life. Irenaus is the writer of that great sentence, often heard from him: the glory of God is a human being truly alive." (11)

It is periodically the case that resources on-line or in books of practical theology bear such proclamatory fruit, but each time I set aside time to read great theologians, I come away once again with a sense of the wonder that is this holy conversation, and the over-flowingness of such discourse for the life of faith and preaching.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Save Darfur

SaveDarfur.org has a post called "Organize your Community" that's worth checking out...

Concerned citizens across the country are coming together to help the people of Darfur.The coalition strives to empower activists with effective tools and relevant information. We also encourage activists to team up with others in their area and join our Communities United to Save Darfur network.…

Friday, March 23, 2007

Exemplary Youth Ministry

Most of the study documents are now out on Exemplary Youth Ministry. I find the whole study and results inspiring, and will spend some time reporting and writing on them these next few weeks.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Youth Ministry Best Practices

Five Themes of Faith Formation

1. Faith is formed by the power of the Holy Spirit, through personal, trusted relationships, often in our own homes.
2. The church is a living partnership between the ministry of the congregation and the ministry of the home.
3. Where Christ is present in faith, home is church too!
4. Faith is caught, not taught.
5. If we want spiritual children and youth, we need spiritual adults/parents.

Four Keys

Parents can double the probability that their youth will build a life of faith in Christ by establishing a home where faith is freely shared and related to the everyday circumstances of family life through the practice of the 4 Keys:
1. Caring Conversations
2. Family Prayers and Devotions
3. Rituals and Traditions
4. Acts of Service (Based on Search Institute's "Effective Education Study", Family Strengths research at U. of NE and Dr. David Anderson's study of Luther and Lutheran practice.)

Triple A Road Servants

Triple A Road Servants are those people who seek to live the life of a disciple by being
Authentic, Available and Affirming with all people, especially youth.

Eight Faith Factors

Dr. Roland Martinson has identified eight key factors or "best practices" found in congregations where youth developed a deeply owned faith and remained involved in a faith community following high school graduation:

1. Faith deeply integrated into family identity and practice
2. Six to eight adult mentors of faith, in addition to parents (New numbers as of 8/04)
3. Apprenticed early into leadership in their church
4. Engaging, meaningful church experience in which youth are valued
5. Excellent senior high/young adult ministry
6. Encouraged by strong Christian friends – peer ministry
7. Support within an engaging Christian community during personal crisis
8. Three or more months of service in the name of Jesus Christ.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Pastors Writing Badly

Theolog is the blog of The Christian Century , and this recent piece on "Pastors Writing Badly" caught my attention.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Having the Time to Bear Fruit

While preparing to preach on Luke 13, especially Jesus' indication that God is incredibly forebearing, giving always one more year for trees to bear fruit, I came across this passage in Stanley Hauerwas's commentary on Matthew (don't ask why I'm reading a commentary on Matthew in order to preach on Luke...). Hauerwas writes,

Jesus is the sign of the end of the age, making possible for [the disciples] to have the time, as Jesus did, to feed the hungry (Matt. 14:13-21; 15:32-39), cure the sick, comfort the comfortless (15:21-28), welcome the stranger (8:5-13) and be imprisoned and crucified between two prisoners. This is the work the have witnessed and been given as they have followed Jesus on his journey through the towns of Israel and finally to Jerusalem itself. This is the way they will learn to be watchmen for the kingdom, for by performing the work of the kingdom they will be given the gift of discernment so that they will be able to resist the temptations of the devil.

In a wonderful essay entitled "The Scandal of the Works of Mercy," Dorothy Day lists the works of mercy, codified by Thomas Aquinas, based on Matthew 25:

The spiritual works of mercy are to admonish the sinner, to instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to comfort the sorrowful, to bear wrongs patiently, to forgive all injuries, and to pray for the living and the dead. The corporal (bodily) works are to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to ransom the captive (those imprisoned), to harbor the harborless (refugees and immigrants), to visit the sick, and to bury the dead (Day 2002, Writings from Commonweal)

Her colleague, Peter Maurin, whom Day identifies as the founder of The Catholic Worker, was, according to Day, as much an apostle to the world as he was to the poor. He did not believe works of mercy were a strategy to care for the poor until another and better more effective social policy could be found. He believed that works of mercy were the social policy that Jesus had given his people for the renewal of the world. According to Day, Maurin though that in order to convince people

it was necessary to embrace voluntary poverty, to strip yourself, which would give you the means to practice the works of mercy. To reach the person in the street you must go to the street. To reach the workers, you begin to study the philosophy of labor, and take up manual labor, useful labor, instead of white collar work. To be the least, to be the worker, to be poor, to take the lowest place and thus be the spark which would set afire the love of people towards each other and to God (and we can only show our love of God by our love of our fellows). These were Peter's ideas, and they are indispensable for the performing of works of mercy.

Day calls this understanding of the works of mercy a scandal because it challenges the assumption that Christians are to do something for the poor by trying to create an alternative to capitalism or socialism. The problem with trying to create such alternative is that we seduce ourselves into believing that we are working to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, care for the sick and those in prison without knowing anyone who is hungry, naked, thirsty, a stranger, sick, or in prison. Day and Maurin knew that attempts to create a "better world" without being a people capable of the works of mercy could not help but betray Jesus's response to his disciples' question of what sign will there be of Jesus's coming and the end of the age. The sign is that they have the time to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, care for the sick and those in prison.

Moreover, such work will be offensive to those in power who claim to rule as benefactors of the poor and hungry. A people shaped by the practice of the works of mercy will be a people capable of seeing through those who claim to need power to do good, but in fact just need power. Great injustice is perpetrated in the name of justice. Great evil is done because it is said that time is short and there needs to be a response to this or that crisis. Christians live after the only crisis that matters, which means that Jesus has given us all the time in the world to visit him in the prisons of this world.

Free Trade Fair Trade

First, a web resource that gives new meaning to "free" trade:


Second, a passionate fair-trade resource:

Global Exchange

We're spending a bit of time this spring in our Pastor-Theologian group on public theology and the economy, so I'm paying attention to these resources. The new book I'm loving and which pointed me to these links is Worldchanging edited by Alex Steffen. It's not only a useful book. It is also simply beautiful in design and construction.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Snow Day Sermon

Temptation and the Disciplines of Lent
Sermon for February 25th, 2007: 1st Sunday of Lent

The Gospel lesson:

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” 5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

The sermon:

The most important thing we learn from Jesus' temptation in the wilderness is this: The devil's most cunning temptations invite us to do something we might perceive to be good, but are actually bad. Most of us are not tempted to do something we know to be really bad. Instead, we are more often tempted to do things we find somewhat good and pleasing, but that are actually contrary to God’s Word.

Let me give you an example from my own life. One temptation I have as a pastor is to seek constant approval and praise. I like approval, and I like to receive compliments (who doesn't?) Most of us know it is good to give and receive praise. It helps our self-esteem. But when I make decisions based solely on how popular I will be as a result, this is succumbing to temptation. Paul writes at the beginning of Galatians, “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” I imagine most of you have seen me at work enough now to know that I have even more temptations than this. I welcome your providing me with appropriate biblical quotes to protect me from temptation.

What follows are a list of imagined temptations, paired with a quote from the Bible. It is my hope that we might learn from these pairings that oftentimes, God's ways are not our ways, and we need to hear the counsel of God in our life in order to be set free from temptation.


Temptation #1: I'm too young, or too old, and therefore cannot volunteer and serve in the church, or contribute to the vision that God has for our church.

Biblical response: Your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions (Joel 2:28).

Temptation #2: I give 2, or 5, or 10% of what I earn to the church and other charities, and that is enough.

Biblical response: Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me. (Matthew 19:21)

Temptation #3: I’ve already given everything away (or most of it, anyway), and so I’ve achieved Christian perfection.

Biblical response: If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:3)

Temptation #4: I’m not that bad. I’ll go to heaven because I haven’t done anything that horrible.

Biblical response: There is no one who is righteous, not even one; all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3)

Temptation #5: I’m so bad that God can never love me.

Biblical response: In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4:10)

Temptation #6: It’s ok for me to condemn that person because they are a druggy/sinner/bad person.

Biblical response: Jesus came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. (Matthew 11:19)

Temptation #7: No one has ever asked or invited me to make use of my gifts in church. That’s why I don’t volunteer.

Biblical response: So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith. (Galatians 6:10) And, For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. (2 Thessalonians 3:11)

Temptation #8: My work, or family, or hobbies, or athletic events, or… are more important than God and my ministry in the church right now.

Biblical response: Yet you have abandoned me and worshiped other gods (Judges 10:13)

Temptation #9: But what about me and what I want? I want to be entertained, have a good time, and please myself.

Biblical response: it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

Temptation #10: I want to work on the Sabbath; I want to disobey my parents; I want to carry hate in my heart; I’m attracted to someone other than my spouse; I’d like to copy copyrighted music off the Internet; I’d like to gossip about my neighbor; I wish I had a house as big as my neighbor.

Biblical response: The 10 Commandments


It is clear from this list of temptations, and from the conversation between Jesus and the devil, that we need the Bible to help defend us from temptation. We need something more than our own power and strength. We need the word of God.

We also need some disciplines. We can imagine that Jesus prayed while in the wilderness, and we know that he practiced the spiritual discipline of fasting. Prayer and fasting were his preparation for temptations. It also seems he read the Bible a lot before he went into the wilderness, because he was able to quote from it in response to the devil’s temptations.

We should not think that we are spiritually stronger than Jesus. So we should read the bible to find responses to our temptations, and we should take on Christian disciplines to ward off temptations.

William Cavanaugh writes, “Christian discipline is the antidote to the world’s [and the devil’s] attempts to discipline us.”

One of the traditional ways Christians have disciplined themselves is by taking on a Lenten discipline. Many of you know that my Lenten discipline this year is to spend less time on e-mail. My temptation was to always be checking it, always worrying that a new e-mail was in my basket. So, the discipline is an antidote to that temptation. What discipline are you taking on for Lent? Here are some good possible disciplines:

1. If you’ve never had a Lenten discipline before, maybe this year it can be as simple as asking someone close to you, or a member of the church or the pastor, how they think you are doing spiritually. Then have them assign you a Lenten discipline.

2. You might take on a “classic” discipline- Lutherans sometimes talk about the “marks” of the church, all of which can be resources. These include
a. Baptism- find a way to remember and trust in your baptism each day
b. The Word- read the Bible every day
c. Holy Communion- attend worship every Sunday and receive communion
d. The Office of Ministry- check in with your pastor, kind of like your annual medical check-up
e. Worship- Sing a hymn and pray every day, especially with other people
f. The Cross- find a way to suffer together with Jesus for the love of your neighbor

3. Maybe you can participate in our Trust Fund challenge grant, get a copy of Giving to God, written by Mark Allan Powell, and read it.

4. Take on the discipline of caring for the poor, the grieving, and the lonely.


It’s especially good if you talk to someone else about your Lenten discipline, tell them what you’re doing, and have them help you stay accountable to it.

When you take on a Lenten discipline, I think you’ll find out how true this quote from Jesus is: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:29-30) Disciplines are, counter-intuitively, freeing, because they set us free from some of the ways the word and the devil have trapped us. Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, replaces the heavy burdens of the world with the light and easy burdens of Christian discipline.

So I invite you into this Lenten journey with me. Together, let us take up Jesus’ light and easy yoke. Let us come together regularly, on Sundays for Communion, and Wednesdays for meals, fellowship, and prayer. Let us support one another, let us be ministering angels to one another, for Christ has called each one of us, through baptism, into this community of mutual consolation and care.

And by the way, Mr. Devil, since Christ is on our side, you don’t stand a chance! Depart from us, in the strong name of Jesus. Amen.